Mr. Clean: Is Tom Corbett the next Dick Thornburgh?

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

It is always interesting to look back at history to find situations similar to those we currently find ourselves in as a guide to what actions we should take, or perhaps to foretell the future.

The military is often accused of "fighting the last war" because the pitfalls of the most recent conflict frequently dominate discussions on how to deal with the current threat. Policymakers are always trying to right the wrongs of the unintended consequences of their last efforts at government intervention.

But no group of people is more prone to looking at precedent than candidates, campaign types, and the pundits who pontificate upon the campaigns. Since I am or have been in all three of those categories the upcoming race for Governor of Pennsylvania is an irresistible target for comparison.

Specifically, is Attorney General Tom Corbett the political reincarnation of Dick Thornburgh? The parallels between the 1978 GOP gubernatorial primary and the upcoming 2012 contest are startling. It is, as Yogi Berra once observed "déjà all over again."

Tom Corbett has staked his political future on rooting out corruption in Harrisburg. It is a massive undertaking. Not only has he indicted the former Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, he now appears poised to take down the number two and number three Democrats in that same chamber. And, there is every indication he won’t stop there.

Coming on the heels of the middle-of-the-night pay jacking uproar and the Bonusgate scandal, the current capitol corruption scandal has Pennsylvanians furious at state government. People across Penn’s Woods are demanding reform. They want someone to clean up the mess, and Tom Corbett is doing the job.

Rewind the tape to 1978. In 1978 the Commonwealth was reeling from years of corruption in the administration of Governor Milton Shapp. Indictments, perp walks, convictions, and jail terms dominated headlines in the state’s major newspapers. The voting public was sick and tired of the sleaze in Harrisburg.

At the time Dick Thornburgh was a young U.S. Attorney in the western district of Pennsylvania. He resigned his position to mount what was viewed as an uphill campaign for governor. Thornburgh did in fact face virtually insurmountable odds. First, he entered a hotly contested primary that included such big names as Arlen Specter, Bob Butera who had served as Republican leader in the House, and Henry Hager the Senate President Pro Tempore, among others.

Riding a wave of regional support Thornburgh defeated his primary foes and was immediately installed as a significant underdog as he headed into the General Election campaign against popular and populist Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty.
Flaherty, however, ran a terrible campaign and a scandal weary electorate turned to Thornburgh. Thornburgh prevailed in an upset and went on to clean up Harrisburg.

As we approach 2010 a similar dynamic exists within the minds of the voting public. And again, a corruption-busting attorney has emerged from the west not only promising to clean up Harrisburg, but actually doing it.

Although critics will charge Corbett cannot pursue a corruption investigation at the same time as he runs for governor that issue will have little salience. He did it last year while running for re-election. And, the public is going to place a higher priority on rooting out corruption that it will on Tom Corbett spreading himself too thin.

Adding to the strength of the 1978 analogy is the recent entry into the race of State Representative Sam Rohrer from Berks County. Rohrer shares a geographic base with the third GOP contender, Congressman Jim Gerlach of Chester County. And, Corbett is likely going to face a General Election opponent from the west: either state Auditor General Jack Wagner or Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.

But, no two elections are exactly the same. Rohrer in particular complicates Corbett’s scenario. Since 1978 the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania has become substantially more conservative to the point where ideological conservatives dominate in primaries. Corbett is acceptable to the conservative base, but Rohrer is one of its stars. This could give him traction far beyond his tiny legislative district base.

As the next few months unfold the voting public will be looking for Tom Corbett to successfully prosecute those he has indicted while simultaneously running a credible campaign for governor. He will be, as he has for the past couple of years, walking a political tightrope. So far Tom Corbett has done that successfully, but if he stumbles and falls, Sam Rohrer could be the sleeper who picks up the baton.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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